Thursday, January 22, 2009

Westchester Guardian/Catherine Wilson.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

Making the Grade

In the past eighteen months, the Metro North railroad crossing at Green Lane in Bedford Hills has been the site of several vehicle mishaps. The latest incident was on New Year’s Eve when a motorist claimed the warning signals did not activate in time for him to drive his vehicle out of the path of an oncoming train.

While the vehicle was damaged, fortunately the driver escaped uninjured. The Saw Mill River Parkway runs exactly parallel to the Metro
North railroad at Green Lane in Bedford. Several of the incidents at this crossing have been blamed on driver error, motorists following their GPS (Global Positioning Systems) blindly. Since the Metro North train tracks and the Parkway are within a few feet of each Making the Grade other, drivers are interpreting the GPS instructions to “turn right” to mean turning onto the railroad tracks instead of the Parkway.

Naturally, once the vehicles are on the tracks, they get stuck. Several vehicles were hit by oncoming trains in recent months; all drivers escaped injury. The folly of these drivers has inspired the creativity of local residents who are posting colorful stories about these escapades
on the internet: “Joe Blow from Katonah was returning home from a night of New Year’s festivities in White Plains when his car stalled on the Metro North crossing in Bedford Hills.

Blow, 45, managed to somehow maneuver his way around the gate, with its flashing lights, that was effectively barricading the train tracks when he turned to the back seat to fish out another beer from the cooler he had back there. He stopped the car on the tracks to get a better look at the dwindling selection, having finished off all the Budweisers.

Without warning a train full of drunken New Years Eve revelers, who for reasons unknown found it enjoyable to stand in sub-zero
wind chills for 13 hours to watch something they could have seen on TV, came speeding up the northbound track. Mr. Blow claims that the train did not have its lights on and that he did not hear the operator blow the choo choo whistle. Mr. Blow did manage to get his cooler out of the back seat before the train plowed into his Lexus. Train service on Metro North was disrupted for hours as investigators were trying
to find out the cause of the “accident”.

But they were able to say that the train really put the “dent” in “accident”. Most people on the train didn’t realize they were involved
in an accident as they were either passed out or vomiting at the time. A Metro North official believes that trains might be back on schedule by Monday’s morning rush hour”.

Metro North and local officials have stressed that these incidents are no laughing matter and that they take them very seriously. Indeed, Metro North has already updated their signs at this crossing. In one of the GPS incidents, the motorist immediately called 911 from his cell phone to notify emergency services that his vehicle was stuck on the train tracks.

However, Metro North has its own police service so the emergency notification to the trains was delayed since this information had
to be relayed. For that reason, Metro North posts the number to call for emergencies at all of their railroad crossings. At the Green Lane crossing, it was posted as “888-MTA911PD”. While alpha-numeric phone numbers are easier for the user to remember, they are far more difficult to dial for users of a “Blackberry” phone. Regular phones have the alphabet linked to each number in groups of three – number 2 is
“A,B,C”, number 3 is “D,E,F, and so on. Blackberry phones use a typewriter/computer keypad so the numbers are not linked to a letter of the alphabet. In order to dial an alpha phone number from a Blackberry, the user has to match the corresponding phone numbers and letters manually, often having to recite the entire alphabet to dial each number.

One of the drivers involved in the GPS incidents pointed out the difficulty of calling the Metro North emergency number from his Blackberry device. Metro North has already replaced the warning sign at the Green Lane crossing with a numbers-only phone number “888-682-9117”.

Metro North spokesperson, Marjorie Andrews, confirmed that all of their railroad crossings are in compliance with Federal standards and are inspected regularly. According to Andrews, “These incidents are always caused by a car being where it’s not supposed to be.” The State
Department of Transportation is also responding to these incidents.

According to Sandra Jobson, NYSDOT Region 8 (Hudson Valley) Public Information Officer, “This location was identified as having serious issues. The DOT already has a project underway to raise the roads so a car will not get stuck. This project is going to bid this Spring”. The project is listed on the NYSDOT web site as “SMRP@ GREEN LANE RAMP & GRADE CROSSING PROFILE IMPROVEMENTS, Project I.D. No. 821683”.

Th e project is expected to cost $270,000 and will be performed with federal and state funds, no local or County funding will be required. The finished crossing will be similar to the improvements made by the NYSDOT to the Reader’s Digest crossing in Chappaqua.

The NYSDOT reviews all accident reports led by police departments throughout the state analyzing them for patterns. “We look for patterns and incidents that are above average for the type of road, conditions, etc.” Jobson noted. “We had already identified the Green Lane crossing as needing improvement and the NYSDOT project was already underway”.

According to New York State railway-highway crossing analyses for 2007, the Green Lane crossing had only one crash at this crossing, resulting in minor injuries. In 2008, the incident level jumped to three, all without injuries. While most of these incidents have been related
to the misuse of GPS systems, the NYSDOT confirmed that they are not identifying GPS misuse as a variable in their analyses as yet; all such incidents are currently being reported on accident reports as “driver error” or “driver inattention”.

The Automobile Association of America also confirmed that they are not tracking incidents based on GPS misuse as of yet but expressed an
interest in the Guardian’s research for this article as a basis for a similar article of their own on this issue. As part of our research, the Guardian went to both the Reader’s Digest and Green Lane crossing to determine if the difference between these crossings presented difficulties for drivers.

The Guardian observed dozens of drivers crossing both roads with no difficulty, even when trains approached. All warnings operated allowing drivers to stop in time to avoid approaching trains. The Guardian did not notice any drivers having to “slam on their brakes” or use other emergency procedures to avoid incidents.

The Federal Railroad Administration, Office of Safety Analysis, reported only 2 highway-rail incidents in all of Westchester County for 2008, through October. While their statistics did not note Green Lane specifically, the two incidents correspond to the two GPS misuse incidents at this crossing. The FRA reported a total of 84 rail-road-related incidents in 2008, 47 of which were “employees on duty” or
other incidents due to trespassers, getting on/off equipment trains, stumbling aboard trains, assaults, doing maintenance work, throwing switches, setting handbrakes, stumbling, tripping, etc.

The FRA reported only one fatality for 2008, classifying this under “other” incidents due to trespass. Both Metro North and the NYSDOT stressed that all railroad crossings are safe when used properly. Lieutenant Mazurak of the Bedford Police Department, first responders for the Green Lane crossing, reiterated that statement. “All railroad crossings have the potential to be extremely dangerous so drivers need to
pay particular attention”.

Mazurak recommended that drivers follow the rules outlined in the Department of Motor Vehicles handbook:

• Come to a full stop;

• Look both ways before crossing;

• Proceed only when safe to do so.

According to Lieutenant Mazurak, “Railroad crossings are safe when drivers do what they are supposed to do”. One rule drivers may want to add to the DMV rules is to stop following their GPS systems blindly. This advice is emphasized by the manufacturers of the GPS systems themselves. The popular Garmin systems clearly note in their instructions “when in actual use, carefully compare indications
from the GPS to all available navigation sources including the information from other NAVAIDs, visual sightings, charts, etc. For safety, always resolve any discrepancies before continuing navigation”.

Regardless of any improvements made by Metro North and NYSDOT, drivers should still approach all crossings with caution. As one individual interviewed by the Guardian on this subject noted, “An argument between a train and a driver is not one the driver will win”. Fortunately, there have been no fatalities reported at the Green Lane crossing. If drivers follow the guidelines recommended by Lieutenant Mazurak, the DMV, AAA, Metro-North, and NYSDOT, the Green Lane, and all other local railroad crossings, will be able to maintain their safety records.

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